The cider making process has three main steps:
Step 1. Acquiring apples:
The apple season in Virginia begins in late June, but the majority of Virginia apples are harvested in September, October and early November. To make the best cider, it is advised to have a mix of sweet, sharp, and bitter flavored apples. Some examples of each of these are:
A good starting point for new cider makers is a mix of 50% sweet, 35% sharp, and 15% bitter apple varieties. However, feel free to experiment with whatever varieties and mixes you prefer.
It takes a lot of apples, about 14 pounds (or approximately 42 apples), to make 1 gallon of cider. While it is possible to buy apples at the store, it can be a lot more fun and a lot more affordable to buy local. A few apple orchards near Blacksburg include:
Be sure to call ahead before visiting an orchard as not all varieties may be available and pick-your-own may be limited to certain days of the week.
Step 2. Turning Apples to Pulp:
Before the apples can be pressed, they must be crushed into a pulp called the mash. There are many ways to do this. The traditional method uses what’s called a “scratter”, which has a toothed rotating drum that crushes and shreds the apple. These are specialized tools, however, and can be expensive to purchase or difficult to construct.
One of the cheapest ways to make pulp is to put the apples into a bucket and smash them with a heavy piece of wood. Be sure the wood is not treated, or you can contaminate the apples with harmful chemicals. Other methods include using a blender or a meat grinder, however these are limited to small quantities of apples and require a lot of effort.
A more recent method, and the one used at Hacksburg, uses an in-sink garbage disposal to create the mash. (The disposal was purchased new and was thoroughly cleaned before use!) We found this method to be cheaper than a purpose built scratter and much easier than other methods. The picture to the left shows the apple pulper in use at last year’s cider making event.
Step 3. Smash the pulp to extract cider:
Now the fun part! To extract the juice from the apple mash, it must be pressed with a large amount of pressure. To do this, we built a cider press out of 2×4 lumber and a 4 ton hydraulic bottle jack. The press is shown to the right.
To keep the pulp from being squeezed out with juice, it is wrapped in cloth or thin mesh. A few small bags are made, called cheeses, which are stacked between flat plates, called racks. If only a single large bag is used, the pressure isn’t distributed evenly and not all of the juice is extracted. The racks help to distribute the pressure and extract as much juice as possible. A stack of 2 cheeses and racks is shown below.
Be sure to bring thoroughly cleaned containers large enough to hold all of your cider. Unclean containers can effect the flavor of the cider and may contaminate your cider. Popular containers include canning jars, plastic jugs (from milk or juice), and glass jugs and bottles. A good source for new glass containers locally is Eats Natural Foods on North Main Street. They also carry a large selection of supplies useful for making hard cider.
Raw apple cider should be consumed as soon as possible for best flavor and will keep approximately 10 days to 2 weeks if refrigerated. Your cider can be used to make apple cider vinegar or hard cider, although you may want to change your ratio of apples for the best flavor.